Vicki Car has been running the Australian Ballet’s millinery department for eight years, creating thousands of hats, headpieces and tiaras for all its productions. Manon is one of the most hat-intensive shows in its repertoire and after its Brisbane season opens in Melbourne tonight (before travelling to Sydney). The ballet requires a lot of felt, brocade and tricorns and is more hat -intensive for the men than the women. Car gives us the low-down on making hats, tells us there are no bald AB dancers, and despite being a milliner who lives in Melbourne, she says has never been invited to the Melbourne Cup. What gives?
How long have you been a milliner?
I’ve been a milliner for almost 15 years and although l trained at the London College of Fashion, l learnt most of what l know on the job. I remember my old boss at The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden saying that a millinery apprenticeship lasted about seven years, which l thought was mad when l first started. Seven years later l realised she meant that it took that long to be comfortable with whatever weirdness was thrown at you. I don’t always now how I’ll make something that may be complicated or unusual, but I’m confident I’ll figure it out. Now that I’ve finished my apprenticeship.
How did you get into it as a career?
I started as a dresser in theatres around Melbourne, moved to London, found work as a mechanist and eventually worked my way to assistant head of stage at the Savoy Theatre. I was standing at the dock door at three in the morning in the middle of winter unloading a 40-foot truck full of theatre sets, wearing a high-vis coat that someone got off a north shore oil rig. The truck driver had been calling me ‘love’ and ‘princess’ for hours, and then it started to snow. I suddenly had an epiphany that this was a stupid way to earn a living and perhaps it was time to look for a job that was more indoor work and less heavy lifting.
What do you do in the job?
We make all the hats, headdresses, tiaras and jewellery worn by the dancers. We occasionally make shoe bows and we even more occasionally bead tutus. I’m fairly sure I have the best job in town.
How many in your department?
Just me and my trusty assistant Tessie. She is one of the cleverest makers in town and as well as having a large middle ground where our hat making skills cross over, I shoot off on a jewellery/tiara tangent and Tess onto a sculpting prop making tangent. It makes for a happy department as we are constantly amazed by each other’s cleverness.
Are you there for every performance or is hat maintenance done by make up staff?
I am rarely there for performances. At dress rehearsal l go over to the theatre and watch, but by then my work is mostly done and I’ve handed it over to the wardrobe department who run the shows day to day, including all the washing and maintenance.
Is it hard to dance in a hat?
I would imagine l would find it difficult to dance without a hat, but the dancers don’t seem to have too many problems. We have all sorts of tricks to make it easier but sometimes they just have to tough it out and make it work. They are very good at making my hats and headdresses look light, which sometimes they are most definitely not.
What would you tell someone not to do in a hat – either onstage or off?
Sit on it.
Do you work in tandem with the set and costume designer?
We work very closely with the costume designer. It’s our job to make their vision (and sometimes their squiggles) come to life. Some days that’s easier than others obviously.
Has a dancer ever refused to wear a hat you’ve chosen?
I once had a dancer refuse to try a headpiece on in case l messed up his hair… and no I’m not telling you who it was. Very occasionally a dancer will ‘forget’ but our dancers are not in the slightest bit precious or prima donna -ish.
Do dancers get fussy or difficult about the hat they are asked to wear?
I feel for the dancers sometimes. We ask them to wear all sorts of stuff and they don’t always love it or think they look good in it. But they are consummate professionals and are incredibly respectful of the work we do, as we are of the work they do. It makes for an easy working relationship in most cases because as a costume department we are constantly aware of their needs as dancers. If it’s too heavy, or they can’t lift their arms over their heads without knocking their own hat off their head we need to rethink what we are doing. The bottom line is that the dancer is the one on stage in front of 2000 people and they have enough to worry about without being anxious about their costume. It doesn’t always work that we can give them what they want but we try.
What is the life span of a hat? Is it longer than a dancer’s?
My lecturer told me that a hat had to look as if it hadn’t been touched by human hands. I’m not sure that’s entirely relevant for theatre, and especially for ballet where things have to be tough. We never know how a show will be received so we make everything to last a nuclear fallout. It looks light and delicate but it’s like armour plating. Some of the costumes we have are 30 years old and still being used, others are ten years old and have been out every year since they were made. That’s a long time in the life of a costume.
Have you ever made a hat for dancers to wear to the Melbourne Cup?
No but l do sometimes make a wedding headdress if one of our dancers is getting married. They wear tiaras all the time so they often want something simple. And they never turn into Bridezilla.
Do you go the Melbourne Cup?
I’ve never been! I worked for a fashion milliner when l first got back from London who said fascinators had been invented so women could be sick in their hat without losing it in the gutter, and then carry on staggering home with their shoes in their hands. I decided then that l wasn’t going unless l was able to go into a marquee. Fingers crossed that this is the year my invitation comes in the post… Although if the invitation does come I’m going to have to put my money where my mouth is and dazzle the world with my spectacular hat rather than passing judgment on everybody else’s. Perhaps l should start now just in case.
What’s your favourite hat in the AB collection?
My favourite piece is not a hat but a tiara. It was designed by our fearless leader and artistic director, David McAllister, for Grand Pas Classique. It’s a very beautiful and VERY sparkly.
How often do you introduce a new hat into the AB collection?
I potentially make hundreds of pieces every year and they are all lovingly packed and stored when the show is over. Sometimes they will live to fight another day, sometimes they will quietly sit in shame, never to be seen again.
Have you had the chance to create something really wild as a hat? Which show was that for?
2013’s production of Cinderella was a bit kooky. We made hats that looked like shoes, planets, stars and moons. When l first saw the designs l had no idea how to make most of it, which was exciting and scary all at the same time. It’s been a while since that’s happened. A few years ago we made a production of Scheherazade designed by Gabriella Tyloseva which was also lots of fun. There were tiny fez hats with pom poms on wires and the girls had hats that looked like hot pink tadpoles. We love those jobs.
What’s the Mount Everest for a milliner?
Mount Everest is different or every milliner l think, depending on your skills. My Mount Everest is always time. Building a big three act ballet can warp time like nothing else l know.
Which AB production poses the biggest challenges for you and why?
The biggest challenges are either not enough time or an inflexible designer. In spite of some fairly errr… interesting timed deadlines we’ve never missed one yet. There’s still time of course.
Where does Manon fit in degrees of difficulty?
Manon was first made 20 years ago – well before my time, but one of the things l love about it is the theatricality of it. None of the hats are particularly challenging to make but define their characters perfectly. It’s what makes costume so critical to the story ballets. They inform a character for both the dancer and the audience in a way that the choreography would struggle to do on its own l think.
What are the particular requirements of Manon hat-wise?
Manon is unusual in that it’s a much bigger hat show for the boys than it is for the girls. Lots of tricorns and guards hats for the big groups of boys in rich, heavy brocades and felts. At the time the numbers made were on the lean side so there is always a lot of stretching and padding to make sure every one gets a hat that fits.
What was the last big change in hat trend for women?
Whatever it was passed by without me noticing. If l had to make fashion hats I’d give up and get a job in a bike shop, or I’d make hats that looked remarkably like the hats l make for theatre which no-one would want to wear. There are some wonderfully talented fashion milliners in Melbourne but l alas, am not one of them.
What’s big in hats now for men?
The boys are doing well at the moment. A lot of them are looking very smart in flat caps and trilbies with small brims. It’s nice to see a man confidently wearing a hat.
Do you ever tell bald dancers to wear a hat? Surely the lights on the skin must be blinding for the audience?
We don’t have any bald dancers. It’s customary for the Prince to have hair, otherwise no one will know he’s the Prince. A bigger challenge is to get the boys with a lot of hair to look bald.
Do you (or your mother or aunts or grandmother) ever wear hats routinely in daily life?
I come from good Croatian peasant stock so we did headscarves in fields. Not overly glamorous, but practical I suppose. My own hats are often practical to keep the cold out or the rain off, and the ones that aren’t get worn until the whole of Melbourne has seen them several times and then l rush another one out at the last possible minute. I’m hopeless without a deadline.
What’s the best hat you’ve ever seen?
That changes all the time depending on what I’ve seen. I’m often most excited by the very theatrical hats or the ones that are made out of unusual materials.
Who’s your favorite hat designer?
I love some of the work William Chambers does with plastic straws and feathers and it’s hard to go past Philip Treacy and Stephen Jones for pushing the boundaries of what women are prepared to put on their heads.
Do you get invited to a lot of hat parties?
No! Are you having one soon? Can l come?
Can a hat make you feel like a new person?
A hat can make you feel like the most glamorous woman in the world, or it can make you feel like you want to fall through the floor with embarrassment. It’s a finer line than most people think.
Thank you to the Daily Review, Click Here.